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The hidden costs of polygamous unions society can't avoid

In practice, polygamy poses a lot of challenges, and when it's not managed right, the consequences can be grave.

I know a man who is married to two women. The two wives have been living in separate houses next to each other for years now. They visit one another occasionally, share food during Ramadan and their kids all play together.

The man divides his time evenly between his two wives, trying to be as fair as he can. Of course, this isn't an easy task and he is aware of it. His first wife understands and accepts the situation. I cannot tell if everyone is happy, but both marriages appear to be peaceful.

This might be called a "good" example of polygamy. But is this the exception rather than the rule?

To be sure, these are deeply complicated issues that have been interpreted differently by one generation to the next. But because polygamy is a choice, the younger generation is increasingly opting for only one partner.

I have heard many stories of first marriages that failed due to a man's decision to take a second wife. As a result of these break-ups, many problems have been created, many women have been divorced and many children have suffered.

Polygamy is permitted in Islam and, as such, the practice is fairly common in our society. But unfortunately, too many women find themselves trapped in bad situations, forced to choose between moving on with their lives when they want to leave such relationships, or staying in them because of their children.

The problems polygamy can present for some are not always apparent. For instance, when a first wife agrees to her husband's second marriage, she may still suffer social stigma, as she would often be seen as the reason behind the taking of a second wife.

"Why would her husband marry someone else?" people would ask. "She must not have given him what he needs as a man; she must not have fulfilled her role as a wife."

Working to avoid such stigma can be painful, too. I've heard women say they would prefer to turn a blind eye to acts of infidelity by husbands, rather than risk men taking second wives.

Second wives can face social stigma, too; some members of society regard a second wife as a type of criminal. "How dare she steal a man from his wife?" people might ask. "She must have seduced him to marry her." And the judging goes on.

A careful reading of the Quran makes clear that Islam does not give men the right to marry more than one woman unconditionally; the right comes with a crucial condition. The Quran says: "Marry woman of your choice in twos, threes, or fours, but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly [with them], then only one." The practice of polygamy is not unique to the Muslim world, but Islam seeks to limit the number of wives.

Of course, not all men have the financial and psychological capacity to "deal justly" with more than one wife; to be just in providing food, clothing, housing, attention and proper treatment. The Quran recognises this by saying: "It is very difficult to be just and fair between women." These difficulties are interpreted as both financial and emotional.

Still, many Muslim men look to marry more than one wife simply because it is legal and permitted in religion, without thinking of the huge responsibility that comes with it. It is required in Islam to treat women with respect, as men are held responsible for their behaviour towards women.

The Prophet Mohammed once said, addressing his male companions, that "the most complete believer in faith is the one who is best in character, and the best of you are those who are best to their wives".

But many polygamous men cannot even afford the expense of maintaining more than one family. And so families suffer financially, as well as psychologically, as disputes and marital problems multiply. This in turn causes failure of both marriages in some cases, and everyone suffers.

However, I understand that in some cases, polygamy can be the only solution to difficult problems. And there are cases of successful polygamy that are both peaceful and practical - for instance, when women encourage their husbands to marry another woman because of their own illness or inability to bear children.

Given the abuse of the practice I have seen among many men, and the social stigma attached to it, perhaps it's time that men and society internalise the meaning behind "polygamy" in Islam.



On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui

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